I flew to Leipzig in March. Tottenham were playing a Champions League game in the city on the tenth. On the way over I became vaguely aware of how many people on the plane were coughing. This was back in the days before social distancing, when masks were for weirdos and dissidents, and so we packed on to the airport bus as normal, piled into crowded trams taking us to the stadium, and crammed into our seats alongside 42,000 other people. At the same time, we all knew this would be our last football game for a while, and we all knew why.
The day after I flew back from Germany, Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta tested positive for coronavirus. By the end of the week, pretty much the entire apparatus of global sport, from the Olympic Games to the local gym, had been shut down. I remember feeling doubly beleaguered by this. Speaking from a professional standpoint, a world without sport was – on the face of things – a suboptimal moment to be employed as a sports writer, even if there were plenty of others who had it far worse. But for fans of sport, for its consumers and zealots, the problem verged on the existential. When you have built your routines and your identity on sport, how do you navigate a landscape in which it no longer matters?
In many ways, this is the question that sport spent most of 2020 trying to answer, particularly as quarantine and Covid protocols forced organisers into increasingly surreal arrangements. The National Basketball Association decided the only way to salvage the rest of its season would be to lock 22 of its teams into the Walt Disney World resort in Florida for two months and play the rest of its games there. Meanwhile, as most of the UK was still struggling to get tested, the Premier League started buying up thousands of testing kits ahead of its feverish June restart. We were assured that this was all an unalloyed “Good Thing”, a matter of grave national importance – that the return of live sport was somehow fundamental to our mental health as a society, even a species.
The truth was both a little more straightforward and a little more complex. In the first instance, the return of sport – under any circumstance – was born of a desperate need to honour television contracts. Broadcasters had airtime to fill. Twitter wasn’t going to argue with itself. (It would if it had to, of course, but that was beside the point.)
During the lockdown months, I sat through numerous briefings with harried-looking sports administrators who wore haunted expressions and used bleak phrases such as “keeping the lights on” and “potentially catastrophic consequences”. Never mind public morale or some exalted sense of purpose. For most of 2020, the primary function of sport was simply generating enough content to survive the next audit.
And yet, gradually and by degrees, sport began to reveal its real purpose. I suppose this is because at its most basic level, sport is really just a vessel for our most primal urges – competition, conflict, congregation – and so even when you take the sport itself away, these urges still somehow need to be processed.
As the toxin of daily news bulletins began to eat away at all of us, our waking thoughts becoming increasingly filled with tales of ventilators and desolation, I reported on virtual darts matches. I spent hours watching classic rugby league games on YouTube. I started running, an activity that had always struck me as perfectly pointless on the basis that it was almost always quicker to take the bus. I downloaded yoga classes on to my iPad and managed to nail a wheel pose for the first time in my life. I lost 9lbs. As for so many in this strange, suspended reality, sport – both big and small – acted for me as a vehicle for personal healing.
On the wider stage, too, sport was working out how to make itself matter. The death of George Floyd on 25 May catalysed a wave of revulsion and protest all over the world, but it was in sport – for so long institutionally resistant to the idea of protest or social change – that the uproar felt most vivid and shocking.
[see also: How Jürgen Klopp became the Mersey messiah]
In late August, the NBA’s Disneyland bubble ground to a halt as teams boycotted their fixtures after the police shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake, in Wisconsin. Around the world, athletes started ripping up their prepared platitudes and demanded change. Sensing the potential of the moment, the Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford led the government a merry dance on free school meals.
Sport is so often described in terms of escapism, as a safe space in which we can happily cushion ourselves against reality. But what 2020 has shown us is that sport – again, both big and small – is better understood as a place in which we articulate alternative realities, superior realities – where we can claim what the world at large denies us. It is where we go to express the optimistic part of ourselves: the one that may dream of a fairer future, feel pride in a town that has long been forgotten, celebrate a body that society tells you is fit only for bearing children, or perhaps create a ritual and derive a meaning beyond simply working until you drop dead.
And so 2020, a year defined by bleakness and privation, ends on a surprisingly wistful note: with vaccines being rolled out and the gyms and sports clubs reopening, and fans tentatively returning to the darts and the football. The old habits are kicking back in; the new ones fast receding into memory. I started writing about actual sport again. I stopped running. I put on 13lbs. The other day, I tried to do a wheel pose and pulled a muscle in my back. It felt like pure, blissful freedom.